I’m a Phillies fan, but let me start by stating the obvious- they are the underdog. The 106 win, home field holding, fourth World Series appearance in six years, throwing a future Hall-of-Famer tonight, and haven’t lost a postseason game yet Astros have to be favored. It’s not a close call on paper. Houston is the favorite.
So why even play it? Give them that second championship now. Yeah, the Phillies have had a nice run, but they haven’t been here in 13 Octobers, they can’t possibly pull this off, right? Figure Astros in five, obviously.
42 years ago, in the Astrodome, the Phillies beat the Nolan Ryan in game 5 of the NLCS, then went on to win it all. Close to a month ago (seriously), they gave Houston their last loss to date, clinching the final spot in the playoffs. At that time, Bryce Harper was dead cold, and the fan confidence in these Phillies was pretty damn low. Aaron Nola pitched, as he will tonight, and he was about as good as humanly possible. Since then, the Phillies ended the careers of Albert Pujols, Yadier Molina, and maybe Adam Wainwright. The Phillies ended the season of the team that beat the Astros in last year’s World Series, the 101 win Atlanta Braves. Then for good measure, they took down the Manny Machado, Juan Soto, and Yu Darvish show to get here. Funny thing is, I think some in the press would give any of those three teams more of a chance in this series than the Phillies. But I know, we only won 87 games, this is a crime against baseball.
In all seriousness though, the Astros are good. They absolutely rolled the Yankees for the third time in six years. You’re watching a historic group that is going for that second title together. Four World Series in six years is not something you’ll see often again. This is easily on par with Joe Torre’s Yankees. They deserve to be favored. As they did against Atlanta. As they did against Washington.
The Phillies will get at least four starts from Nola and Wheeler if this goes seven games, and they’ll need to be great. If they get less than two wins from them, the series is going to Houston. They probably need three wins. They also need Bryce Harper to keep being the best player in baseball, Kyle Schwarber to play like the home run champion that has a ring of his own. Hoskins and Realmuto have to be really great too. Houston just needs to do what San Diego failed at- beating the middle of the Phillies rotation. Jose Altuve waking up could kill the Phillies too.
With all of that said, the pressure is on Houston to win that second, frankly clean title. The Phillies are as capable as any team they’ve met in a World Series so far, especially right now. They’re on a magical run. I’m a Phillies fan, but I haven’t picked them in every round. I am now. Phillies in seven.
The Yankees are huge underdogs. Yes, you read me right, there’s absolutely no objective way you can pick the Yankees to win this series. The Yankees dominated baseball for four months, but unless you went into a coma at the trade deadline, you can’t seriously pick them. They won less games and don’t have home field advantage. They lost the season series. They’ve lost not one, but two head-to-head ALCS during the Astros six straight appearances. They just played a full five game game divisional series. The Astros have their pitching lined up and the Yankees don’t. This seems super easy, right?
You know it won’t be easy though, right? Aaron Judge is heating up. Giancarlo Stanton is healthy and hit a game five homer in the ALDS. The Yankees feel good after coming back from the brink. Justin Verlander looked terrible in his first postseason start. If they just get a split in Houston, they can come home with Cole and Cortes.
Still, every quantifiable measure supports Houston, and how do you pick against them? Outside of a gut feeling it might be closer, what do I have? Nothing. In the AL so far, I’m 3-1 (dammit, Toronto). Hard to start being crazy now. I have to go Houston in six, even if I don’t like it. I’d really like to run back 2009, if I’m being biased.
Happy Opening Day of the 2022-23 NBA Season. For those of us who watched our team get knocked out in the second round of the playoffs (yet again) on our home court (yet again), well, we’ve been waiting for this. It’s a season without Ben Simmons drama. Without a whole lot of questions about the starting lineup. The Sixers start off the 2022-23 season relatively stable. That’s a relatively new feeling.
The way I view the NBA is pretty simple, there’s basically four tiers in each conference. There are contenders. There are teams that should compete to make the playoffs, and with some luck could contend. There are teams that can hope to make the playoffs if everything goes the right way. And then there’s like four teams who could skip this season now and probably only miss out on like 15-25 wins. This is really fun if you’re in group one. It’s actually weirdly fun if you’re in the bottom group. You still think it’s fun now if you’re in group two. Honestly, it’s probably not that fun if you’re in group three. So who is who?
Contenders. This is where you want your team to be, right? You want to believe a championship is possible in June. If you can possibly make the Finals, you have a shot. In the Eastern Conference, this basically means you’re Milwaukee, Boston, Philadelphia, Miami, Brooklyn, and Cleveland. Are these teams all equal? No. Milwaukee is definitely the team most deserving of being the favorite, having won two years ago and being healthy again. Cleveland is probably not quite ready. All six of these teams can realistically dream though, and so they’re here. Out West, defending champions Golden State are joined by Phoenix, Memphis, Dallas, the Los Angeles Clippers, and Minnesota Timberwolves. Are these teams all equally possible? Hell no. Minnesota hasn’t done anything yet, the Clippers get hurt a lot, and Phoenix choked bad last season, don’t put those teams next to Golden State’s dynasty. With that said, the talent is there. So yeah, I’m giving 12 teams a serious shot at a title.
Playoff contenders/Maybe contenders/Pretenders. Ah yes, the thin line between being a bubble team that loses the play-in and maybe trending up into the top group. It’s more crowded than you think. Toronto, Chicago, Atlanta, and Charlotte all were trending right last season in the Eastern Conference, and all three are teetering on this edge this year. The Los Angeles Lakers, New Orleans Pelicans, and Denver Nuggets all fit comfortably into this category in the West to start this season.
They won’t make fools of themselves/Purgatory. If you’re not picking high in the draft and hoping for a superstar, but you’re also no better than 1% odds of winning a playoff series this year to begin with, what exactly are you doing? Oh sure, none of these teams will be pathetic wastes. Some of them even are starting to make moves that seem partially rational. Let’s be clear though, these teams need to take some real steps forward to matter, or this is just a lost season. Out West you have Portland, Sacramento, and San Antonio fitting snuggly into this group. In the East you have New York, Indiana, Washington, and Detroit. I doubt any of these teams are very, very bad this season, although statistically some of them have to be. Let’s just be honest though, there’s almost no chance any of them are in the second round of the NBA playoffs this year. This begs the question- is the draft lottery simply a better place to be? If you’re wondering, the answer is yes.
Weeeeeeeeeeeeee! Let’s just be honest, it’s over before it starts. Orlando isn’t going to make the Eastern Conference Playoffs unless there’s some magic in that camp, and even if that happened they would get swept by whichever of those top six teams wins home court through the playoffs. Out West, Houston, Oklahoma City, and Utah are all pretty much eliminated from contention as I write this. You know what though? This can be fun. I became a much bigger Sixers fan when we were winning 10 to 30 games a year long enough to finally draft two All-Stars. Yes, it was pathetically funny. You also understood that until you got a super talent like Embiid, you were basically fucking around in the second and third group without any real purpose or hope to win the NBA Championship. Unless you can make your way into that top group by February, let’s be honest, all the other groups are the same. At least with these teams there is zero pressure, and you can just evaluate the pile of garbage you have and see if there’s anything worth saving. Frankly it’s way better than lying to yourself and telling yourself you’re Brad Pitt when you’re maybe a 2 out of 10, fellas. Life is better with honesty.
Ok, so what gives on the Sixers? Here’s the good news- this is the deepest roster this team has had in the Embiid era. You should be excited to see Melton, Tucker, Harrell, and House come in here to join up with Niang, Milton, Korkmaz, Springer, and Reed to form an actual bench that doesn’t have a bunch of stiffs that you cringe every time a starter leaves the court and lets one of them in. The main problem in last season’s loss to Miami has been resolved- the Sixers added players to come off the bench and play competent basketball when the starters are off the court. That should make them an honest contender to have the best record in the East and maybe win home court, like they wasted two years ago.
This brings up the real question about this team, the question that did in every recent team but one, and definitely did in the team two years ago- who will be the stars behind Joel Embiid? Embiid will be great as much as he’s on the court, and if Doc Rivers can just keep him healthy, he will give us an honest chance at winning a championship this year. He’s truly a Hakeem Olajuwon style big. The truth is we had the second star behind him, Jimmy Butler, and we basically let him go because of a combination of catering to Ben Simmons and preferring to re-sign Tobias Harris and keep things simple. That ship has sailed though. I think Harris will continue to be a very solid third or fourth option for the Sixers this year, and is probably the steadiest player on this roster after him. I also think Thybulle should thrive if he can simply hit spot up jump shots at a reasonable enough rate to stay on the court and deliver his elite defense. So that basically means championship hopes fall on two guys that are question marks for different reasons. James Harden is a future Hall-of-Famer that appears to have come into camp in great shape, and ready for a great season later in his career. Tyrese Maxey is the most likable young player you’ll ever see, and appears to have come into camp ready to take a giant leap forward towards greatness at the early end of his career. If one can meet the hopes and the other just be fine, the Sixers should win 55 plus games. If both do? There’s a parade next June. If neither does? Hopefully they win a playoff series, but they’ll probably at least make it because Embiid. The season really probably comes down to these two guys and how they perform this year, nothing more, nothing less. The world is brutally unfair.
So, what do I think? I want to believe the Sixers are a really deep team with three to four stars, lead by the best player in basketball. The other end of the range is they’re a team lead by a big man in an era when you need back court play to contend, and the back court won’t give me enough. As with the other 29 teams, health will dictate how close to either end they end up. I tend to think Morey adding depth will make it easier on the two “stars” who I am putting this season on. How healthy Embiid is in May could decide this, as it did last year, but I’m really hoping Doc learned some lessons from Game 6 in Toronto. If this comes down to Maxey and Harden, I actually feel pretty good. I think Melton was possibly the sneaky good move of the off-season, and he could really lend this team a lot of really high quality minutes. With that in mind, I’m thinking Atlantic Division Title. I’m thinking Eastern Conference title. No, I’m not quite thinking NBA title- yet. Adding another shooter would change my mind. Good health would change my mind. Positive Thybulle would change my mind. I’m going in relatively confident, maybe even over confident, and hoping to be selling this team a little short. We’ll see.
A couple of Thursday’s ago, after a nice dinner out, I was sitting in my friend’s living room and we had stumbled onto the topic of job hunting and how running for President of the United States, and for that matter any public office, was so different than seeking any job you could possibly think of in the private sector. Her and I both have a similar vantage point to this discussion in that while she’s not in the political field now, she has been in the past, we can both view political issues in a bit of a wonkish way, but we’ll say we both have known how to live wild in times past (she went to Arizona State, I’m definitely not worthy).
Naturally we stumbled onto perhaps the best illumination of this discussion possible- Bush 41 and Bush 43. On paper, Bush 41 is obviously a far, far superior candidate for the job than his son. If this was a CEO position being chosen by a corporate board of directors, there’s literally zero chance Bush 43 would be chosen over his father. That would be his father who served in Congress, ran for the U.S. Senate, ran the CIA, served as Ambassador to the United Nations, ran for President, served eight years as the Vice-President of the United State, all before winning the Presidency in 1988. Of course Bush 41 beat possibly the worst political candidate of the last 40 years, Michael Dukakis, in a 1988 blowout that was caused by Dukakis being even worse at connecting to normal people than Bush 41. Four years later when two far more charismatic and capable politicians ran against Bush 41, including maybe the most charismatic man since JFK (Bill Clinton), Bush 41’s Presidency was over. Have no fear though, just eight years later his son, a wild college frat boy that did some cocaine, wrecked an energy company, got some DUI’s, ran a baseball team into the ground, and then found Jesus and a cowboy hat, he won the White House by beating the wonkish nerd Vice-President, a man with qualifications a lot like Bush 41. Bush 43 not only won, he won a second time and is the only Republican President since his father’s 1988 victory to win a majority of the popular vote in a Presidential race. One could argue the far less qualified and prepared Bush is the best Republican politician of the internet era in America.
So what about that man who served between the two Bush Presidencies? Yes, Bill Clinton, the politician that probably could have served four or five terms had our constitution let him. That would be the man who was so popular he survived scandals that would have destroyed even other great politicians. His 1996 margin of victory over Bob Dole might not be matched in a Presidential election any time in the rest of my adult lifetime. Yes, he oversaw a booming economy and relative period of peace, but Joe Biden can argue historically low unemployment and ending our longest running war right now, and it’s not saving his approval rates. There is just something incredibly different about a politician like Bill Clinton. He told you he felt your pain and you actually believed him. He played the saxophone. He liked music like you, he ate really unhealthy McDonald’s food like you, you’d see him at a ball game sitting court side. Even his affairs gave him a certain “normalcy” at a time when divorce was becoming far more common place in America. Bill Clinton could relate to you, or you could to him, depending on how you saw it. He succeeded where Mondale, Dukakis, Gore, Kerry, and even Carter had failed in the post-1960’s world, standing as a Democratic politician who didn’t scare the living hell out of a country that had long since turned it’s back on New Deal and Great Society liberalism. He was bigger than life, playing the saxophone on Arsenio Hall, and yet he was really very normal.
If you want to be an executive at Goldman Sachs, or SpaceX, or Meta, or Apple, or Verizon, there’s a pretty good chance you will face an interview with people who are experts in what you want to do. If you want to be a college professor, the track from getting your doctorate to being hired, let alone to being hired, requires a lot of peer review. Doctors not only go through med school, but not-so-high-paying post grad work to prove your skills. Lawyers pass the bar to even be allowed to work, let alone get a high paying job in the field. Professional athletes are picked by scouts who draft them and develop their talent to the major leagues, or can cut them if at any point they don’t see the development they want from the player. Almost any other job in the world that is “elite” requires you to be peer tested, and to show your qualifications to get the position. Even being Vice-President requires you convincing the Presidential nominee of your political party (and the vetting team on their campaign) that you are the best pick for the job, then winning a national election of the public. Even rock stars and actors convince someone along the way that specializes in that field to believe their talents can bring millions of fans to buy their product and make everyone involved money. Society simply does not hand out any job worth having to any old shmuck that comes along. Let’s be honest, there’s an interview process for everything, and it’s almost without fail supervised by someone who knows exactly the qualifications and skills they want for the job. Except for President of the United States. We literally let almost any shmuck out in society have an opinion or even a say in whether you’re the right pick.
Let me put this in a little bit more crude terms- super unqualified people get just as much of a say in who the next President is as members of Congress do. Often times, candidates with better resumes lose. Al Gore, Mitt Romney, John Kerry, Hillary Clinton, Bob Dole, and John McCain are among the recent people to lose a Presidential election, and absolutely zero of them qualify as stupid people, unqualified to do the job, or somehow lacking in the faculties to serve in office. Donald Trump never served a day in government office of any kind before he won the White House. Barack Obama had been in the United States Senate less than two years when he jumped into the 2008 Presidential race. George W. Bush had barely recovered from the sting of being denied the Commissioner of Baseball job when he was being sworn in as President. Today he looks super qualified for the job, but Bill Clinton faced questions about “only” being Governor of Arkansas when he won the White House in 1992. Joe Biden looks like a post-Cold War outlier today sitting in the White House, a man with a long political career at the time of his election. We really don’t care that much about who has more lines on their resume when we hand the nuclear codes to someone who will serve in the Oval Office for four years. That’s just a bit startling.
American politics really is less about qualifications and more about relatability. Spending all of your political capital arguing “deep weeds” policy points and trying to be perfectly right in every argument does not have a great track record of winning elections, it has a great record of getting you the top job at Boeing. American voters really want to know you have something, anything, in common with them. That you relate to them. They’d like to know something more about you the person, at your core. John Kerry won all but two issues in most of the network exit polls against George W. Bush in 2004. He lost the question of keeping the country safe and leadership qualities. It turns out that trumped all the other issues. Republicans were astonished that their attacks on Barack Obama as unqualified and weak fell flat, as the country wanted someone they genuinely liked, and felt like he actually related to the pain they were feeling at that time. Democrats laughed at Trump’s appeals against “the elites” and asking “what the hell do you have to lose?” It turns out a lot of people felt really alienated by Washington, D.C. at the time. Bill Clinton didn’t leave office with better than 60% approval ratings because of the brilliance of his first Budget Bill, or entirely because of his record job creation, but in large part because of how he made people feel. It turns out emotion is stronger than being right, quite often in politics.
The friend I was sitting with that night, she’s quite literally one of the smartest people I know, I really enjoy my conversations with her. I don’t enjoy them just because she’s smart though- there’s something fun and relatable about her. It turns out that these things matter a lot in human interactions. In an era where society is incredibly analytical and precise with so many of our actions, it turns out that we often seek out “real” people in our lives, and when we actually get a choice about who is going to be on our television for the next four years of our lives, we’re not picking them based on some checklist of issues. There is a want for some sort of common touch, something relatable, something that makes us forget that our government is largely run by an Ivy League/Beltway class that has little in common with how we live out in the real world. Being “right” is less attractive than being somehow authentic in politics, and that makes us make decisions that sometimes make no sense in rational terms. No Fortune 50 company would pick someone who bankrupt a casino, or ruined a baseball team, to run their operations. Some random high school, or even college educated person living 50 miles from a major American city just might vote for that guy though. And occasionally they may surprise us with how they do. While I basically oppose every policy decision George W. Bush made in the months and years after 9/11, there’s something to watching him throw a strike for the first pitch at Game Three of the 2001 World Series. It made a lot of other people feel a helluva lot better about the terror in the world at that time. There’s more than a little to be said for making people feel. Even just a little bit of “emotional intelligence” can sometimes beat being the smartest person in the room- even when you are the smartest person in the room. Does this make electing an ignoramus right or okay? No, hell no in fact. Perhaps it should serve as a lesson to the “right” people though about how to sell the “right” ideas and stop being such a damn stiff.
Up to this point, I’ve tried to keep my predictions in both leagues together, but the damn rain in New York won’t allow it. So here we are, my NLCS pick.
This is a fairly even series, on paper. The fifth seeded Padres finished two games ahead of the Phillies for the season. The sixth seeded Phillies won the season series. One beat the Dodgers. One beat the Braves. One has home field. The other is 3-1 on the road this postseason. A Darvish for a Wheeler. A Harper for a Machado. A Musgrove for a Nola. A Realmuto for a Soto. A Hader for a Dominguez. I’m kind of surprised how much complaining went on in the press since Saturday about this match up. It lines up as very, very interesting, to me.
I give a slight edge to the Padres on pitching, but not as dramatic as some will think. I like their starters out to four just a little bit better than the Phillies. Depending on David Robertson’s health, I might give them a slight bullpen edge too. With that said, the Phillies won games against Darvish, Snell, and Musgrove this year. They beat Hader once too. Wheeler, Nola, and Suarez threw seven plus innings of one run or less against San Diego this season. But let’s be honest, on paper, San Diego would get the slight edge from non-biased fans, and they’ve earned it in their first seven post-season games. Their staff can silence bats just a little deeper into a game.
I give the Phillies bats a slight, slight edge on the Padres. I don’t see a huge gap between Harper-Realmuto-Schwarber and Machado-Soto-Bell. Pick your poison, both can beat you. By a slight margin, I like the Phillies other six bats in the lineup just a bit more. It’s only a bit more, as you can ask the Mets and Dodgers what 5-9 in the order did to them for the Padres. They’re a hot group right now.
These two teams haven’t met since June, and a lot has happened since then. The two game regular season gap between them is irrelevant, ask the four teams they just beat. Both have narrow edges, but very narrow. So what exactly will matter in this series?
I think the biggest factor in this series will interestingly be the lack of a day off after game five. My gut instinct is this favors the team with deeper pitching, San Diego. There are just two scheduled off days between games 4 and 7, so you can’t get three starts out of anyone in this series. So the Phillies can get two regular rest starts from Wheeler and Nola each this series. The game three starter would be able to get a game 7 start, but only on three days rest. So if both teams presumably go with four starters, the game 1 starter would have just 1 day off to come out of the bullpen in a decisive game, the game 2 starter basically has no rest from game 6 to 7. In other words, depth matters. Clevinger shutting down the Phillies earlier this year, being their fourth starter, looms large. David Robertson’s health, to be decided by how he feels today, after yesterday’s bullpen session, looms huge over this series.
There’s an entirely opposite line of thinking here. The Phillies beat Darvish once. They beat Snell twice. They beat Musgrove in his only start against them. Traveling west for an east coast team takes less out of you than traveling east for a west coast team. And perhaps more than any of this, neither team will have much left in the tank pitching wise by the back end of the series, so the better offense will play up. If the Phillies and Padres pitch against each other as they did in the season, the Phillies will have a lead by games 4 and 5 and the Padres pitching advantage will be moot. This argument is basically as compelling as the other one.
I’ll have to make a prediction here without the benefit of knowing Robertson’s fate, and therefore what I think of the Phillies depth. To be honest, I’m unsure. I picked my Phillies in round one, I picked against them in round two, and I was very wrong (thinking Strider’s presence would matter). I really think this might come down to whether Aaron Nola can keep channeling his inner Cole Hamels 2008/Cliff Lee 2009 in this series. If he does, and the Phillies win his starts, even a Darvish split might not be enough for the Padres, or their pitching depth to handle. In a gamble of hot hands, I see the Phillies being able to pull out at least one of games 3 and 4 in Philly, and to win this series in six hard fought games. Phillies in six.
Time for the divisional round predictions, beginning in the AL.
Astros over the Mariners in four. This series ended up being harder to predict than I thought. On paper? Astros in three. Their roster is simply good enough that they should go to a sixth straight ALCS three games from now. They dominated the head-to-head with Seattle and had the best record in the league. However I just watched Seattle win the most impressive series of the Wild Card round. They make you earn all 27 outs. I’ve also seen Verlander lose some big ones over the years. The Mariners are a hot team. Even still, Houston is the favorite. Seattle takes game three at home, their first home playoff game in 21 years. Houston wins the other three.
Yankees over Guardians in five. Can you say “best series of the round?” The Guardians finished the season really well. Their pitching just dominated Tampa. I’m surprised we’re here, but this series is going to be good. The Yankees are better than the Rays though. Their offense is simply not getting shut down like that. I maintain the first four months of the season aren’t the fraud, August is. The Yankees showed me enough to believe during September, and I think they pull this out. It goes back and forth, Yanks win the odd games.
Dodgers over the Padres in four. The Padres roll in on fire. They beat a 101 team to get here. Their pitching is fire. They got timely hits. They also went 5-14 against LA this year. The Dodgers had the best record in the sport, easily. The Padres pitching will win them a game, I’ll say game two. Dodgers win the rest.
Braves over the Phillies in five. I have to pick my team, right? No. The Braves are the best team in baseball right now. They know how to win in October. They’re better at six out of nine positions in the line-up. They have a better bullpen, particularly with David Robertson out. And their pitching is lined up. I’d give the Phillies a slight edge in the postseason rotation, but that edge could grow if Strider can’t give them a real start Friday. I think the Phillies win games two and four, but not getting two starts from either ace is the difference here.